As Tokyo prepares to formally say “yokoso” – welcome – to athletes from all around the globe, a sense of excitement is gradually setting in. Yet, there is an unmistakable air of uncertainty this time around, athletes having endured lockdowns, curbs and restrictions over the past year to get battle ready, while the lurking presence of the invisible enemy persists.
India has borne the brunt of the pandemic, yet our Olympic preparations have largely stayed on track. Until the 1980s, hockey was India’s only hope for a medal. Today, the country’s contingent is teeming with medal hopefuls – archers, badminton stars, boxers, shooters, weightlifters and wrestlers have emerged as international champions and will be strong contenders in Tokyo.
Indian hockey, too, has hit a purple patch. A consistent run over the past three years has seen the men’s team break into the top four of the FIH World Rankings – the first time this has happened in many decades – and its performance in the recent FIH Pro League made people sit up and take notice. The women’s team has been consistent, too, its current ranking of nine putting it ahead of China and the USA, both former Olympic champions. That said, both teams will have to stretch every sinew to even progress through their pools.
Manpreet Singh the captain of the men’s team, was named the FIH Player of the Year 2020. – Biswaranjan Rout
Australian Graham Reid, the Indian men’s team coach, has opted for experience in defence, while he has pumped for youth and exuberance in the midfield and in attack. Reid’s strategy has clearly been to put as many players around the ball at any given time at any place on the pitch. This requires a forward line to defend deep and then push up at great pace after gaining possession. The midfield largely comprises younger players who can make quicksilver transitions from defence to attack and vice versa. The rolling-substitution rule is working to India’s advantage, and playing shorter bursts has enhanced the pace and effectiveness of the team. For many old-timers, it seems a boon to play only 15-20 minute spells and then be benched for a similar period before getting back on the pitch for another spell of a similar period. Let’s not get fooled into believing this is true. Today’s hockey is played at a frenetic pace and each session is energy sapping. Fortunately, the Indian team of today is supremely fit.
Skipper Manpreet Singh, the FIH Player of the Year 2020, leads by example and will be ably supported in midfield by Hardik Singh. Together, they will have to marshal the younger players and control the flow of play. Harmanpreet Singh is India’s key defender and can impact many an outcome with his drag-flick from penalty corners. Battle scarred Rupinder Pal Singh, Birendra Lakra and Surender Kumar are the other defenders who repose confidence. P. R. Sreejesh has been a rock under the bar and will be keen to show that he can do well at the biggest stage. In attack, Mandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay have shown opportunism in front of goal. They, along with young guns Dilpreet Singh and Samsher Singh, will have to show a lot more creativity and enterprise at the business end of the pitch. Reid’s trust in these youngsters ahead of the tested S. V. Sunil, Akashdeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh appears to be based on physical fitness levels alone.
Graham Reid, the Indian men’s team coach, has opted for experience in defence, while he has pumped for youth and exuberance in the midfield and in attack. – Special Arrangement
Placed in Pool A, the easier of the two pools, India has Australia and Argentina among others to contend with. Should India make it to the top four, it may have to face one of Germany, Holland or Belgium from Pool B in the quarterfinals. That would be a crunch match. Winning there would put India in with a serious chance of getting onto the podium. The Indian women’s team, trained by Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne, has improved steadily with every outing. Skipper Rani Rampal is an exceptional talent and as good as anybody in world hockey. This time, the India team has quality across the field. Vice-captain Savita Punia carries years of experience under the bar. The other, vice-captain Deep Grace Ekka is a resolute defender and Gurjit Kaur an accomplished drag flicker. Upfront, Vandana Katariya and Lalremsiami are players who can unlock some of the best defences.
In Pool A with higher-ranked teams Germany, Netherlands and Great Britain, the Indian women will have to play out of their skins to pip one of the big three or Ireland for a place in the quarterfinals.
The world’s best coaches and scientific training have given India a refreshingly new identity in world hockey. The players’ physical fitness and tactical acumen are now at optimum levels. The teams are better equipped to crack the European as well the Australian styles of play that befuddled us for many years. A winning mentality has been infused and will be hopefully carried into the Olympic Games. A medal from the men and a top-eight finish from the women is a realistic expectation. Only then will it be a happy “sayonara” to Tokyo.
M. M. Somaya was a member of the Indian team that won Olympic gold in Moscow in 1980 and was captain of the Olympic team at the 1988 Seoul Games.